As Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us is reissued by Bloodaxe Books, Soumyaroop Majumdar discovers that there is not much separating ourselves in 2019 from the poet who witnessed the violent history of El Salvador four decades ago.
Carolyn Forché’s 1981 collection The Country Between Us, containing accounts of her time in El Salvador in the late 1970s, a country on the brink of civil war, ends on a note of caution:
It is either the beginning or the end
of the world, and the choice is ourselves
— ‘Ourselves or Nothing’
One detects a sense of timing in the reissue of such a book, a reminder of the devastating consequences of past violence. We turn doubly attentive to our own entanglements with the geopolitics of our time.
Forché defines her own work as ‘poetry of witness’, poetry that can be deemed as evidence of events that would otherwise be lost to us. In these poems, especially the sequence of poems titled ‘In Salvador, 1978-80’, she remembers enough but understands well how frail second-hand information can be. ‘What you have heard is true’, begins ‘The Colonel’, guarding against incredulity in her reader, and herself, as she recounts the horrors she encountered, especially the ways in which the violence was aestheticized by its perpetrators. In ‘Because One Is Always Forgotten’,
A boy soldier […] works his knife
to peel the face from a dead man
And hang it from the branch of a tree
flowering with such faces.
For the poet-witness, grisly scenes seep into the mundane. The seafood in a paella in ‘The Memory of Elena’ resembles severed limbs and lips removed from the faces of informants. If the violence appears to be aestheticized here, we must concurrently examine the ways in which we consume poetry: whether we find witness accounts of violence offensive when included in poetry or whether, once included, we devour them like news. In ‘Return’, Forché tries to understand
men and women of goodwill read
torture reports with fascination.
How exactly a ‘poetry of witness’ is different from any other kind of poetry committed to report the truth is perhaps a question that played a part in the writing of ‘The Colonel’. As a sack reveals its contents, human ears, she pauses—‘There is no other way to say this’—and, in stoic detached tones, goes on to describe the base derision with which the colonel displays his macabre collection and treats his guests. It is as though the singularity of the event demanded a prose poem: there is no other way to say this; it remains far enough from the aesthetic overtones associated with poetic forms, but for it to be included in a book of poetry is a singular act in itself. In fact, what the poet has witnessed produces a singular language. In the extraordinary poem ‘The Visitor’, about a prisoner presumably on death row, she writes ‘It is a small country’. We expect a follow-up line like ‘There is nowhere to run’ or ‘Your actions catch up with you’. Forché makes an unexpected turn, raising the stakes further: ‘There is nothing one man will not do to another.’
When The Country Between Us was first published, it was meant as a sort of report back to the people of North America about the effects of US interference in the politics of El Salvador, which is why Forché seems to consider reading as a mode of listening in many of these poems. The poet-witness looks to create agency within her reader by elevating ‘listening’ to a virtue when a dead friend appears and admonishes the self-absorbed poet: ‘Piskata, hold your tongue, she says. I am trying to tell you something’ (‘Endurance’). However, she is aware of the ways in which the human condition is subject to the laws of time and space, elements which directly affect our capacity for empathy:
[…] we are not unalike.
When we look at someone, we are
seeing someone else. When we listen
we hear something taking place
in the past. When I talk to her
I know what I will be saying
twenty years from now.
– ‘The Island’
When studying the artistic significance of Forché’s work, it is impossible to evade the debate around ethics and aesthetics: what is beyond the reach of ethical poetry, which, once subsumed into a poem, amounts to an exploitation of human suffering? Forché seems to anticipate such criticism when the colonel, in the eponymous poem, sweeps the human ears off the table and sardonically raises a toast to her—‘Something for your poetry, no?’—as though his act was a performance, mocking the ways in which a poet may respond: by writing about it; as though compelling her to acknowledge his role as a collaborating artist; as though any conversion of the event into poetry is as barbaric as his act. Forché does not remonstrate. Perhaps there is no adequate human response to such acts — in which we participate even as readers— other than to provide all of it as evidence, for a judge and jury that goes unnamed.
Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us is published by Bloodaxe Books, RRP £ 9.95.